BMCR 2000.02.33

Response: Knapp on Jones on Knapp/Vaughn

Response to 2000.02.15

Response by

Writing a textbook is a risky venture; the product is not likely to find approbation in all quarters. While we welcome the useful remarks of Jones in her review, we would like to clarify the authors’ intent at a number of points mentioned in that review. We are particularly concerned to emphasize that although texts are very personal things, many of Jones’ hesitations seem to us to derive from her apparent wish that we had written a different book. We, on the other hand, would like the book considered on its own merits, with its purpose held in mind. We would also like BMCR readers to know that, whereas Jones only used a few sections in her class and based many of her reactions on that practicum, the entire text was used in preliminary form with on-going revisions over five years at a number of institutions by a wide range of instructors, from senior professors to graduate student instructors; these institutions include San Francisco State, Berkeley, and Bryn Mawr (with another instructor than Jones). The narrative aspect of the coherently selected texts has met with approbation (for example, one student wrote that it was a “rousing good story — I was sorry to see it end!”). While of course not all students rave about the text (what text did all students ever rave about?), there has been little complaint about the overall difficulty of the passages. We certainly do not claim perfection in this text! However, we think it is better suited for an intermediate Latin class — i.e., one that has students with a full year of Latin grammar and who have already begun to read extended, simple passages of prose and poetry — than Jones’ review implies.

What follows is an elaboration on some of her specific comments.

1. The selection of readings. Jones notes her desire to expand the items in the text to include, e.g., Catullus and Cicero on Catiline. While the Catullus item on Caesar should, indeed, have been included (we even at one time considered the Mamurra poems, but thought better of it …), the Catilinarian material is temporally rather distant and does not cohere with the dramatic narrative of the late fifties and early forties. The point here is that text has been conceived and constructed as a unitary event. That is, the whole point of the selection is to tell the narrative, in first-hand language (hence, “eye-witnesses”), of a critical time. Treated as such (i.e., as a coherent narrative, not as a collection of selections to be picked and chosen from in order to give students a variety of styles and genres — a completely different goal), students can “get into” the drama of the times, identify with the leading characters, learn about their rhetorical, political, and social methods, and live out to some extent these critical and exciting events. Of course, it is the instructor’s job to guide them in this, and Jones gives little indication of having fully understood this basic intent of the text — an intent which is, in any event, vitiated by reading only selections, as she apparently had her class do. In passing we should note that we do have represented a bit more prose than Caesar, Cicero, Velleius, and Hirtius; the prose of Pompey the Great and Domitius Ahenobarbus appears — passages which students find fascinating as they are imbricated with the basic Caesarian narrative. We don’t note this to claim that these equal Catullus, only to show that we reach as widely as possible within our desire to present an “eye-witness” account. Of course, in the end, one must decide whether a scattered selection of readings or a tightly focused narrative is best for a given intermediate Latin offering — a very personal decision indeed.

2. The glossed vocabulary. Admittedly, the choice of glossed vocabulary (and how much of it there should be) is also very personal. But we did begin with a plan: our primary aim was to help students systematically build a basic vocabulary for future use, not just to provide help in getting through the text. As stated in the introduction, we systematically mark all the words which are included in a fundamental, about 2,000 word Latin vocabulary; this vocabulary is based upon word frequency in Virgil, Cicero, and Caesar. Thus, of course, some familiar words are marked for memorization. But our hope was that students would be drilled for memory on all the asterisked words, while using the un-asterisked words for general aid in translation. Naturally this does not mean that the whole idea we had is a good one. But at least there is a rhyme and reason… As to the choice of unasterisked, glossed words, we can only say that the lists were developed over five years of teaching with various versions of the text, and these words are the ones in our experience which regularly caused students trouble. Although useful revisions to the lists are always possible and desirable, there is, again, at least a rhyme and a reason for what is there now.

3. The difficulty of some passages. Again, this is a matter of expectations we have of students, to some extent. But more fundamentally, we were willing to push students into (and, we hope, through) some difficult passages because the payoff is that they are reading a coherent, undoctored account. We would note that the passage Jones picks out and quotes as being too difficult — section 6 page 20 — is, in fact, recognized as difficult by us and handled accordingly, since we have a dozen glosses on that one passage, some grammatical, some vocabulary, some contextual, and some historical. With the help of such material and the teacher, the difficult passages can be gotten through — with some struggle for some students, true — but with the end satisfaction for them of having read and understood a coherent narrative.

4. Selection of language material to comment on. Jones notes that we spend time on simple things. Again, we were driven by experience in teaching the material. Even though our students all were in intermediate Latin, i.e., they had had a year of grammar with the beginnings of reading some prose and poetry, we still found that they did not all have the same level of training, as they had had first year under different instructional approaches and/or had learned the first year material unevenly. Thus we found that not all students knew the basic parts of speech, nor had they all been orally drilled in proper pronunciation; hence, we tried to explain even “simple” things, for some students needed this, having either never learned it or having forgotten it. For students who already knew these things, the brief review seemed harmless enough.

5. Summary. While Jones in general lauds the “nuts and bolts” aspects of the text (illustrations, commentary, notes, etc.), she notes in conclusion, “In general, I would have reservations about using this book with an intermediate Latin class, primarily because of the difficulty of the passages. In addition, the challenge of assimilating a large number of names and historical events, in my experience, can prove difficult for students for whom syntax is still a struggle.” These are certainly valid reservations. We would only remark that the payoff for getting through the difficult passages (and not all are!) and learning some history is great: through the eye-witnesses, students come to appreciate the tremendous social and political tensions of this critical time in Roman (and Western) history, as well as the rhetorical methods the leading players used to further their positions. We, quite naturally, think that if an instructor uses the book with its approach and purpose in mind, it will be a successful intermediate Latin text.